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Antonio VIVALDI (1678-1741)
Il Cimento dell’Armonia e dell’Inventione, Op. 8

Vol. I
Concerto in E, Op. 8/1 La Primavera (RV 269) [9:39]
Concerto in g minor, Op. 8/2 L’Estate (RV 315) [10:11]
Concerto in F, Op. 8/3 L’Autunno (RV 293) [11:02]
Concerto in f minor, Op. 8/4 L’Inverno (RV 297) [8:20]
Concerto in E flat, Op. 8/5 La Tempesta di Mare (RV 253) [8:12]
Concerto in C, Op. 8/6 Il Piacere (RV 180) [8:29]
Stefano Montanari (violin)
Accademia Bizantina/Ottavio Dantone
rec. September 1999, Sala del Refettorio di S. Vitale, Ravenna, Italy. DDD/DSD
Booklet with notes in English, French, German and Italian.
ARTS 47564-8 HYBRID [57:07]

Vol. II
Concerto in d minor, Op. 8/7 (RV 242)* [08:00]
Concerto in g minor, Op. 8/8 (RV 332)* [09:10]
Concerto in d minor, Op. 8/9 (RV 454)** [07:31]
Concerto in B-flat, Op. 8/10 La Caccia (RV 362)* [08:45]
Concerto in D, Op. 8/11 (RV 210)* [11:47]
Concerto in C, Op. 8/12 (RV 449)** [09:04]
Stefano Montanari (violin*); Paolo Grazzi (oboe**); Accademia Bizantina/Ottavio Dantone
rec. September 1999, Sala del Refettorio di S. Vitale, Ravenna, Italy. DDD/DSD
Booklet with notes in English, French, German and Italian.
ARTS 47565-8 [55:42]

These recordings have already been reviewed on Musicweb, in CD format, coupled with the Op/3 Concerti, by Johan van Veen and in the current hybrid SACD format by Dominy Clements. Both reviewers welcomed them enthusiastically and I echo their enthusiasm. 

There are certain works for which I have been seeking an ideal recording for many years: Wagner’s Rheingold is one and Vivaldi’s Four Seasons another. My latest version of the Wagner, Haitink’s recording, recently reissued at mid-price by EMI, still doesn’t quite make the grade but I have a suspicion that this version of the Vivaldi might. One of the theories about Botticelli’s famous painting La Primavera is that it enshrines a neo-Platonic message: Mercury pointing to the skies with his caduceus seems to be reminding us of the maxim ‘as above, so below’, indicating that the painting is an earthly paradigm of heavenly harmony; not ideal but as good as anything on earth can be. The Primavera on this recording, Spring, the first concerto of The Seasons, is about as good as it gets ‘here below’ and the remaining Op. 8 concertos are equally fine. 

So is this the version to have - my ‘Building a Library’ choice as it were? Well, no, because, despite my respect for the neo-Platonic values of Botticelli, I know that there can never be one Seasons to rule them all, any more than there can ever be one universal field-theory of philosophy. Every version which I have ever heard, even those that struck me as wrong-headed, has revealed some new aspect of the music. 

There have been several notable landmarks in my search for the ideal Seasons. Like most others of my generation, I came to know the work from Karl Münchinger’s first, mono, recording, reissued on Decca Ace of Clubs when he made his second version in stereo. I became acquainted with Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos in the same way. We tended to think of Münchinger as the last word on both composers back then, though even his later recordings now sound lacking in vitality. 

Next came Suzanne Lautenbacher and Jörg Faerber on Turnabout, much livelier and in stereo, too, for only 17/6 (later raised to 19/11 or 99p.) It seemed excellent value at the time, but the whole LP played for only around 35 minutes and that bargain 17/6 would equate to considerably more than we expect to pay for a full-price CD now. 

Though the Turnabout version was made with a small-scale orchestra, the SW German Chamber Orchestra, there was no sense of trying to recreate the sound which Vivaldi’s original listeners would have heard. Even when Neville Marriner and the Academy of St Martin-in-the-fields came along and took us all by storm, the scale and style of the performance came closer to authenticity but there was no attempt to replace the sound of modern instruments. Nevertheless, the Loveday/ASMF/Marriner, now reissued at mid-price with three fillers is still highly recommendable: I never hear it without noting some new felicity which I had missed before (Decca Originals 475 7531). Their Double Decca recordings of Op.3, L’estro armonico (443 476 2), Op.4, La stravaganza (444 821 2) and Op.9, La cetra (448 110 2, with Iona Brown) are also still very competitive.

The first period-instrument version to make a real impression was that given by Simon Standage and the English Concert under Trevor Pinnock, one of the first recordings to convince me that period-instrument performance did not mean putting up with cracked notes. It appeared on the eve of the digital era and I soon traded in my chrome-cassette version for the CD when it was released, poor value as it was with just The Seasons. I certainly shall not be getting rid of that version any time soon; its reissue on the mid-price DG Archiv Originals label (474 6161) is still highly recommendable, though the two fillers which have been added still hardly make it outstanding value. If you like this version and want to supplement it with a real Vivaldi bargain from DG, the English Concert/Pinnock 5-CD box-set (not including The Seasons) is a snip at less than £30 in the UK (471 3172). 

One innovation on the Pinnock recording involved the use of a new manuscript version discovered in the Rylands Library in Manchester. Though offering a less radical departure from the published text than is the case with the original and published versions of the Op.10 concertos, the Rylands MS offers a reminder that it is often impossible to specify a definitive version of any piece of Baroque music – Messiah is a prime example of a work which exists in multiple versions. The notes which accompany the new Arts recording refer to the Rylands MS without specifying which edition is used for the recording.

For a long time I supplemented the Pinnock CD of The Seasons with the Naxos recording of all-but-one of the remaining Op.8 concertos; that CD, too, is still very worthwhile – Bela Banfalvi and the Budapest String Ensemble on 8.550189. 

The Naxos performers do pretty well but Monica Huggett and the Raglan Baroque Players under Nicholas Kraemer, on original instruments, do better. Their performances of the complete Op.8 are available either on a 2-CD set (Virgin Veritas 5 61668 2, around £8.50 in the UK) or with the Op.9 concertos on an equally good value 4-CD set. The 2-CD set, though much cheaper than the new Arts CDs, actually offers two extra concertos, RV546 and RV516, some 15 minutes in total. It is with this set that I shall be making my comparisons. In one respect the new version wins out. The documentation in the Virgin booklet is rather rudimentary, whereas the Arts booklets are very informative and even include the original Seasons sonnets in Italian and English translation.

A preliminary hearing of the new Arts CDs led to my feeling that this was about as good as it got. If asked for one word, I would have said ‘lively’. I was very surprised, therefore, to compare the timings and note that La primavera is slower in the new version, L’estate and L’autunno much slower, and only L’inverno actually faster. In fact, the timings given on the rear insert of the Virgin set are completely wrong and do not tally with the timings for individual movements listed inside the booklet. 

Comparisons of overall timings, movement by movement, are difficult to make because the Arts recording tends to vary the tempo within each movement of The Seasons and the other named Concertos, La tempesta di mare, Il piacere and La caccia, in an expressive manner. At least one reviewer has objected to this in strong terms, describing Montanari’s solo playing as wilful and capricious. In theory I ought to agree – I take similar umbrage at the way in which Nigel Kennedy pulled the music about on his first recording of these concertos – but I am convinced here. Yes, Montanari speeds up and slows down in an indulgent manner, but the result is expressive and it wins me over for one. Perhaps when an ‘authentic’ player – the word ‘authentic’ is prominently displayed on the CD cover – like Montanari indulges, it seems much less OTT than when Kennedy does it. By the same token, I can take indulgence from Fabio Biondi, whose version of Op.8, similarly mannered, has won great acclaim, Virgin 5 61980 2, 2 CDs at mid-price. 

My initial impression was that the Accademia Bizantina was a larger ensemble than I am used to hearing in period-instrument performances of Vivaldi. It sounds larger than the Raglan Players and the recording produces a rather more powerful bass than is usual. The booklet lists four first violins, three second violins, two cellos and one each of viola, violone, harpsichord (Ottavio Dantone, the director), organ and archlute. For the first few seconds I wondered if this was going to be a problem but the problem soon disappeared. DC found the soloist’s unconventional ornamentation a little off-putting at first – it does sound rather odd – but, like me, was soon won over. By the time we get to the graphically-presented barking dog at the beginning of the second movement I had really decided that I was going to like this recording very much. As DC says, Pinnock sounds square by comparison: I’d call Pinnock and Kraemer penny-plain against tuppeny-coloured. 

Some of Vivaldi’s contemporaries, of course, thought that penny-plain was better and relegated Vivaldi with his effects to the level of a popular entertainer. Eighteenth-century English taste far preferred Corelli and Scarlatti but I for one am no more willing to try to choose between Corelli and Vivaldi than I am to make the once obligatory choice between Lully and Rameau, or between Wagner and Brahms. In any case, there is not much difference between the kind of scene-painting in Vivaldi’s La tempesta di mare, the fifth concerto in this set, and the mood music in the slow movement of Corelli’s ‘Christmas’ Concerto, Op.6/8. And if you are going to paint a picture – why else include the sonnets in the score, except to set the mood? – you might as well do it properly. After all, the collection was advertised as a contest between harmony and invention, invention in the sense in which it was used by Renaissance orators and musicians – the power of imaginative discovery, the “highest heaven of Invention”, as the Prologue to Shakespeare’s Henry V describes it. No other version brings out the element of contest so well. 

Some of the effects still come off better in other versions – hence my reluctance to declare this my ‘desert island’ version. For all the power of this version of the opening movement of L’inverno, for example, Loveday and Marriner still evoke winter for me more powerfully, “frozen and shivering in the icy snow” and the raindrops in Dantone’s slow movement are rather too hastily despatched for my liking. The whole of this winter is a little too perfunctory and mild for my liking. 

I have concentrated on The Seasons because any set of Op.8 must stand or fall by those first four concertos – some may even just buy the first CD, which is presumably why the two are available separately. I urge you, however, not to ignore the other CD, which is just as well played and recorded and contains some excellent music. You could supplement the first CD with one of the cheaper versions of the complete Op.8, but you would be missing the alternative oboe versions of two of the concertos, which are enchantingly performed here.

If you want a ‘safe’ version of The Seasons, go for the Loveday/Marriner or the Standage/Pinnock, depending on whether or not you prefer period instruments. For a ‘safe’ version of the complete Op.8, Huggett/Kraemer should be your choice. If you are prepared to live dangerously and purchase a version which you may find that you sometimes find over-driven, depending on your mood at the time, the Biondi/Europa Galante or, better still, these Arts CDs are for you. I shall certainly keep my older recordings, for the same reason that I have kept ‘safer’ versions of Vivaldi’s Gloria because there are times when I find Rinaldo Alessandrini’s version of that work unbearably hard-driven, though there are other times when I find it exciting beyond words. I’m sure there will be similar moments when I prefer Kraemer’s or Pinnock’s harmony to Dantone’s contest in Op.8, but otherwise this is now my version of choice. 

Brian Wilson 

see also Review by Dominy Clements




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